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Lesson Plan

1924 Democratic Convention: Immigrants vs the Ku Klux Klan

About this Video
This six-minute video illustrates the battle between two of the most powerful trends of the 1920s: the increasing political power of urban immigrants, and the increasing influence of the Ku Klux Klan. At the 1924 Democratic Party national convention, these two forces fought to a standstill, leading to the longest convention in the history of American politics. The video is useful to lessons covering the 1924 election, or for lessons focused on the cultural and demographic changes of the 1920s.
  • How immigrants were shifting the nation’s demographics and forming alliances with urban politicians.
  • How the Ku Klux Klan and nativist politicians responded to the increasing political and cultural influence of urban immigrants.
  • How the 1924 Democratic National Convention became a cultural and political battleground between nativist Klansmen and the urban politicians who had aligned with immigrants.
  • Social Studies
  • U.S. History
  • Civics & Government
  • Campaigns and Elections
  • Cultural and Social Change
  • Democracy
  • Migration and Immigration
  • Political Parties
  • Race in America
  • Franklin Delano Roosevelt
  • America's Rise to a World Power (1890-1945)
  • 1920s America
For Teachers
Introducing the Lesson

Political conventions are designed to choose presidential candidates, but underneath all the noise they can reveal profound truths about America.

That was the case at the 1924 Democratic Convention in New York City, where the party split. New York Governor Alfred E. Smith led a faction of urban Democrats who supported a vision of a nation built on manufacturing, immigrants who provided cheap labor, and sprawling urban centers full of opportunity.

William Gibbs McAdoo represented older Democrats based in the rural South and West, firmly rooted in agrarian values, who had no love for the racial intermingling, political corruption and crime of the big cities. The fight came to a head when Smith Democrats sought a plank in the party platform that condemned the Ku Klux Klan but lost by a single vote.

That set the stage for what would be the longest continuing convention in America history. It took 103 ballots over 16 days to nominate a candidate. That candidate was neither Smith or McAdoo, but a compromise entrant, John W. Davis.

But from the disaster rose Smith’s campaign manager, Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was making his first real public appearance since 1921, when he began exhibiting symptoms of polio.

Roosevelt gave a rousing nominating speech for Smith, and demonstrated that despite his illness, he was a viable candidate who could move crowds. That set the stage for his transformative election in 1932.

Essential Questions
  • Who was Al Smith? Who were his supporters?
  • Who was William Gibbs McAdoo? Who were his supporters?
  • How close was the final vote on the proposed resolution condemning the Ku Klux Klan? Did it pass?
  • Why was this political convention the longest in American history?
  • Why was the fractured convention a personal victory for Franklin Roosevelt?
Lesson Procedure
  • What is the historical context that explains why the Democratic Party, by 1924, had become such a strange partnership between southern nativists and northern politicians from big cities with large immigrant populations? Why did neither of these factions feel welcome in the Republican Party? From our standpoint today, it doesn’t make much sense that these two groups would be in the same party. From the standpoint of both the pro-immigrant urban politicians of the 1920s, and the nativist Southerners, why did it make sense to be a Democrat rather than a Republican?
  • How do you think the violence and controversy at the 1924 Democratic convention affected the Party’s performance in the 1924 presidential election? Why? How do you think voters use conventions to make up their minds about which of the major political parties is in a better position to govern the country?
  • To what extent are modern American politics driven by changing demographics?
  • Why are newly arrived immigrants often an easy target for nativist politicians?
Additional Resources
Transcript for "Lessons from the 1924 Democratic Convention: An Immigration Debate's Impact" Retro Report

Analyze a complex set of ideas or sequences of events and explain how specific individuals, ideas, or events interact or develop over the course of a text.

Evaluate how historical events and developments were shaped by unique circumstances of time and place as well as broader historical contexts.

Skill 4.B: Explain how a specific historical development or process is situated within a broader historical context.

Theme 5: Politics and Power (PCE).

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